Many readers of Mo Yan’s award-winning novel, Red Sorghum, will not be familiar with sorghum even though it is one of the major cereal grains grown around the world. However, if you’re from the South, sweet sorghum (which we called sorghum molasses) might actually be a staple: hot biscuits with sorghum syrup for breakfast being a favorite. But in Mo Yan’s novel, sorghum is the major crop, sustaining entire villages in northern China early in the previous century. It is also the central image in the novel, symbolic of life and grow but also death and suffering.
The focus in Red Sorghum is the war in China against the invading Japanese that occurred in the 1930s. But it is also the story of a poor agrarian society, ruled by a feudal system and fearing local bandits, that is struggling to stay alive and also to move slowly into the Twentieth-Century. Told through an often confusing series of narrations and digressions, Red Sorghum spans three generation of a family in this rural society. From attacking the Japanese at a bridge to overpowering a rival bandit gang to improving the quality of the sorghum wine by pissing in the pot, Mo Yan’s novel is always interesting and you have a strong sense of the history of these people and, by extension, of the country.
Please read this novel. It is often brutal but also beautiful and lyrical. It will certainly convince you that the author deserves the honor of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012. As the academy wrote of Mo Yan:
“who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”